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Goodbye India...hello Sri Lanka!

Written on: Thursday February 12th, 2009

My time in India was quickly coming to a close as Madison and I boarded yet another southbound train...this one to Trivandrum.  It was here that we said our goodbyes; she was headed up the east coast of India while I was preparing to hunt for a place to spend my last night in this country.  It's funny...when I was researching this portion of the trip from the comfort of my Minneapolis home more than nine months ago, I thought that Trivandrum would be the gateway to fun in southern India.  Now that I was here, I was more than relieved to only spend one night in this town.  Walking through the hustle and bustle, I located a quiet retreat a couple blocks off the main road.  An hour later I located the only bar in town, where I had a beer and my final meal of paneer butter masala.

Arriving at the airport the next morning, I was surprised to feel butterflies in my stomach.  Why is this happening??  Obviously I was a little nervous at the thought of voluntarily entering a country in which there was a war currently being fought.  In fact, I learned that just two days ago a suicide bomber struck in the streets of Colombo, the government-controlled capital of Sri Lanka.  The bomber was from the separatist terrorist group called the 'Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam'.  They currently control a fairly sizeable section of land in the far north and northeast of the country, and are fighting to create an independent state.  Caught in the crossfire of this struggle are tens of thousands of local inhabitants, not to mention the occassional tourist.  With this in mind, I tried to reassure myself that I was making a wise decision; and, moreso, that I wasn't simply trying to make up for the fact that, six years ago when I was in Colombo, I skipped visiting this country due to the same conflict.  No...this still felt right: there was no war in the south; recent travelers to the area raved of the wonderful times they had; and most importantly, my gut feeling told me that I was doing the right thing.

Within mintues after landing and entering the Sri Lankan airport I felt my heightened sense of awareness start to relax.  Everybody was friendly and helpful.  The customs officers were cordial and efficient, the airport police smiling and eager to offer advice, and the people in the shuttle bus inquisitive and jovial.  Having no guidebook or country reference, I had relied upon the knowledge and kindness of locals to help me get to my desired destination of Hikkaduwa, four hours south of the airport.  Everybody I ran into, and I mean everybody, went out of their way to ensure that I was on the correct bus and got off at the correct location to transfer busses.  As an apparent gesture of friendship, one young man even paid my fare, simply to sit next to me and talk during the journey to Colombo. 

As expected, the police presence in the capital was significant, probably even more than usual due to the recent suicide attack.  And I will admit that it was a little disturbing to see these very young men, decked out in full camo, shouldering automatic weapons, lining the street every couple hundred meters throughout the city limits.  But soon we left the city and ventured into more desolate lands.  Concrete buildings were replaced by bamboo huts, and palm trees and coastal waters become more visible with every kilometer.

Getting off the bus in Hikkaduwa, I felt happy.  It was hot, sunny, tropical and slow-paced.  I settled on the third beach hotel I inspected: Drifters Beach Resort and Restaurant.  The nightly rate was negotiated ($9) and I set off to take care of the preliminaries.  I exchanged rupees for rupees, with the Sri Lankan equivalent being a barely acceptable 2.15 times that of its Indian counterpart.  Diving was set up for the following morning with a motorbike pickup scheduled immediately afterward.  Damn, that was easy.  Guess now it's time to have some fun!  With that in mind I left the dive shop at a moderate pace, running atop the cushioned sand as the waves crashed to shore just a few feet away, spraying mist into my face only a split second before the salty water made its way up the beach and into my path.  As the sun seemingly began its decent into the sea, I continued running for another 25 minutes, fully and completely appreciating every step of what is most certainly one of my favorite things in life.

Nighttime found me glued to the computer with my fingertips orchestrating a delicate balance between pounding the keys, shoveling grilled squid into my mouth and washing them down with 500ml Lion beers.  Two and a half hours later I was slightly more caught up on my blog, and ready for a well-deserved night's sleep.

Waking to the sound of waves crashing against the shore was part of the reason I chose this hotel.  Ah, yes; today was going to be another brilliant day!  I rose from bed an hour earlier than palnned, which allowed me to walk a kilometer down the road to look for my first cache in the country.  The location was on the property of a ten year hotel that was currently unused and up for sale.  Fortunately for me, two friendly people appeared from within the structure and welcomed me to look for the "box".  Unfortunately for me, the gentleman followed me out and watched as I overturned palm fronds and coconut shells, desparately trying to find the cache before I had to solicit a request for a hint.  But the tree coverage proved too great and my coordinates were bouncing all over the place; alas, I asked for help.  He led me to the location with a slight chuckle and watched as I struggled to reach the container.  Geocoins were traded before the box was returned to its rightful spot.  Moments later, I found myself being given the guided tour of the hotel, which was being offered at a somewhat reasonable 25 million...Sri Lankan Rupees, that is; or about 230,000USD.  As I left the property en route for the dive shop, my mind raced with thoughts on how I would modify, manage and market the property.  Ahhh, what I am thinking...it isn't even on the beach.  Let it go and enjoy your dives.

Two pieces of what effectively tasted like pound cake were washed down with a coke just before I arrived at Barracuda Dive Shop. 

"Hi guys!  Where are we diving today?"

Already knowing the answer I was happy to hear the confirmation that we were going to do the best dive site in the region, Barracuda Point, followed by what was supposed to be a decent cave dive in shallower water.  We set off, just the boat driver, the divemaster and me.  Perfect! 

We descended for the first dive into 15m visability and quickly saw the highest bommie rising out of the depths.  Dropping to 38m, we neared the ocean floor and I really started to take in my surroundings.  Fish were plentiful; several schools of several species of several sizes swam in coordinated arrays all around us - it truly felt like I was in a 'fish soup'.  Yellow snappers whizzed by by the thousands; fourteen batfish followed our every movement the entire 36 minutes we were underwater, often swimming less than one foot from our faces; large, aggressive jackfish hunted the groupers and squirrel fish hiding within the coral pockets; and what appeared at first to be a nice sized shark in fact turned out to be a gigantic barracuda leading a pack of five through the area.  A couple moray eels, a few elegant French angelfish, an enormous lobster, and two dazzling lionfish rounded out a fantastic, albeit brief, first dive in Sri Lanka.

After an hour's worth of surface interval banter, I learned all I wanted to know about two difficult topics in Sri Lankan history: the rebel war being waged for the last 25 years and the tsunami that hit this coast on 26DEC2004.  Both topics were interesting even though they were unpleasant, and I quickly found myself anxious to get back into the water.

The second dive was shallow...only 15m.  But there was significant surge to contend with as we made our way though several small caves and swim-through openings.  The coral was a bit of a disappointment; in fact, I had much higher hopes for this dive, especially considering it was the 100th dive of my life.  As I swam in 8m of water pondering this very thought, I spotted a rare and beautiful cuttlefish, as if on que, making the entire dive worthwhile.  We watched it change colors and patterns and send electrical charges across its body for almost ten minutes!  Getting back into the boat, I felt satisfied that my centennial dive was a success.

Now it was time to check out more of this stunningly gorgeous coastline.  On the bus ride down I spotted granite boulders lining the shore a couple towns north of Hikkaduwa.  So this was my ultimate destination as I left the bike rental shop.  Riding up the coast I felt free. Pure happiness radiated from the smile on my face!  I stopped at many locations along the way, photographing the spectacular scenery and talking with local villagers who were also spending their day on the shore.  Passing through a couple towns, I eventually caught a glimpse of the rocks that I so desired to explore.  I parked the bike in a nearby clearing and walked through the palm trees to the beach.  Oh my god...this is breath-taking!  Caught in the frenzy of not knowing what to photograph next, I didn't notice the three young boys running across the sand in my direction.  It wasn't until I heard the out-of-breath 'hellos' that I turned and saw the children.  They were outgoing and innocent and eager to meet a new friend.  But when they invited me back to their home to meet their family, my initial reaction was to politely decline before the request for money came into the conversation.  But this hadn't happened yet, and I gradually conceeded more territory until I suddenly found myself in front of a clearing in the bush that led to what surely must be their family's home.  By this time several of the boys' relatives came to the beach to say hello, and I found myself once again surrounded by a friendly local family.  We spoke about the usual things people say to break the ice, and the only thing they asked of me is whether I'd like tea or a coconut.  I eventaully caved on the coconut, but passed on the boys' eager request for me to go swimming with them.  But I promised that I would return the following day to see them again and even go for a swim.  With that, I left my new friends and headed farther up the coast to hunt down a couple caches.  More beautiful scenery awaited with every stop, and I was able to bag two more caches and a couple coins. 

That night I thought a lot about this family.  They seemed so genuine.  I wanted nothing more than to go back to see them again and further the friendship, but had to admit that I was reluctant to ruin a good first impression with the probable talk of gift giving that would almost certainly come into the conversation should I return.  So I decided to sleep on it.

When my eyes once again opened from their battle with the sand man, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to see my friends again.  After treating myself to a more substantial breaky than 'cake and coke', I packed my bag and jumped onto the bike, tuning the ipod to the Throwing Copper album to make the ride all the more enjoyable.  Singing at the top of my lungs, I made my way up the coast at the bike's top speed of 70kph.  I parked in 'my spot' once again, only to be met by an exhausted ten year old grinning from ear to ear. 

"Hello!  How are you?  Where are your cousins?"

This time I followed him directly to his house to meet the entire family.  Three generations lived in the remainder of what looked like a concrete bunker.  The tsunami definitely took its toll on this family.  The dwelling that one of the families used to occupy (ie: the outer room of this structure) lay half crumpled to the ground.  A large stress crack along the entire length of the roof implied that the rest of the structure was ready to collapse at any moment.  So the families had to squeeze into the one remaining open air room for shelter.  The hand made, bamboo table outside held a few kitchen utensils, while the nearby pot perched upon compacted mud was already heating water for tea.  They smiled and spoke of the devastating effects of the tsunami in a manner that suggested it was simply an accepted part of life.  Their nonchalance about it all really threw me, and after intently listening to their stories, I suggested it was time to go for a swim.  But before we could make it to the beach the conversation started again, this time all about me: how many brothers and sisters did I have?  What did my parents do?  How many brothers and sisters did THEY have?  Was I married?  Why was I traveling alone?  What were my hobbies?  With their curiosity satisfied they asked if I'd like to go fishing from the rocks.  Sure; I'd love to!  While one of the kids went off to get some bait, I decided to pull out the frisbee and see how this would go over.  They were eager to give it a go, so we all went to the beach.  A semi-circle of family members formed with me on the inside taking turns throwing the frisbee to all five of them.  Those who didn't partake directly in the game sat nearby and laughed whenever somebody would mishandle the frisbee or throw it askew.

Soon the bait came and three of us headed for the granite boulders.  This was soooo cool!  I was climbing barefoot amongst huge granite boulders in the second most beautiful place I've ever seen in the entire world.  And I was doing it with new friends on an exotic island in an effort to go fishing.  I like my life!  We tried a few locations but came up empty; a similar effort at dusk would likely have yielded more positive results.  But it gave us a chance to talk and learn more about each other, and I have to write that I really felt a bond.  Giving up our quest for sashimi we went back to their home and were promptly served a delicious cup of tea.  But the activity didn't end there: soon I found myself snorkeling above the rocks in the little cove that makes up their backyard.  We searched the blurry waters but only saw a few small fish.  No worries, now it was time to body surf.  We handed off the masks and snorkels and swam out to the point where the waves broke, allowing the force of the water to throttle us the 15 meters back to shore.  Yeah, I could get used to this!  The lovely, outgoing mother called us over again, this time for fresh coconuts that were just plucked out of the tree.  The nectar was delicious and quenched the thirst that had been created by mouthfuls of seawater.

As we scraped the 'meat' out of the coconut shell, they casually mentioned that they saw sea turtles on the beach last night laying eggs. 


 'Yeah (ie: duh!)'

"Can you show me them, please?"

So we strolled across a few more rocks to another patch of beach to see the unmistakable track where a large turtle shell had scraped across the sand.  At the end of the track was a hole in which were laid dozens of eggs.  However, by the time I got there, less than one day later, all the eggs were gone, with only a small pile of empty shells offering evidence that they ever existed.  Appartenly turtle eggs are a delicacy of the local people, and are eaten directly on the beach or sold in the markets for a few rupees each.

Alas, my time on the beach with my friends came to an end, but not before I once again promised to see them the following day.  I cruised south back to Hikkaduwa with Ofra Haza in my ears when my eye caught the sign for a turtle hatchery.  Hmmm...this could be cool.  And it was!  The privately funded hatchery housed five kinds of sea turtles.  Some of the animals were here for the remainder of their lives due to injuries that would no longer allow them to live in the wild.  But the primary function of the center was to retrieve turtle eggs from the villagers that would otherwise be eaten or sold in the market.  They would buy the eggs and allow them to hatch here, then release the babies into the sea for a shot at life in their natural environment.  The man who ran the hatchery was great.  And this couldn't have been easy, as he lost the original hatchery in the tsunami.  Not only that, he lost his entire FAMILY!  The stories he told were unbelievable, but the photographs of carnage backed up every word he said.  It was devastating.  Still, he went about his quest to help save the turtles.  And I even got to do my part, releasing a two day old baby green sea turtle into the big blue!  I plucked him out of the tank and carried him to the beach.  After setting him on the sand, his instincts took over.  He scrambled along the beach, slowly making his way to the water, until a wave finally took him along with it as it went out to sea.  I was able to see him and a couple of the others that were released make their way farther and farther out to sea until they eventually were out of visual range.  Good luck, little one!

That night I stopped at a friendly-looking place for a drink.  It was here that I met Walter from Austria.  A twenty year veteran of Sri Lanka, Walter was the man to ask questions about this country.  We talked for hours, about travel and war and drinks and friends, but his true passion appeared to be architecture.  He even produced a coffee table book specifically on Sri Lankan architecture, which we paged through together and we sipped our Carlbergs.  The other thing that Walter introduced me to was tasty, Sri Lankan arrack.  No; I didn't mis-type!  This stuff was good...nothing like that shit my Xiamen friends and I had in Sulawesi, or the stuff mom and I tried in Bali.  This was more like a cognac.  It was actually something that I would order for the pure enjoyment of how it tasted.  Before long we looked around and realized that we were the only people still in the place, a priveledge that Walter apparently was afforded after twenty years of regular business.  So we said our goodbyes and closed the bar, literally locking it ourselves.

The next day was Valentine's Day and also my last day in Sri Lanka.  Before heading north to say goodbye to my friends, I had printed out sixteen photographs of them and me that had been taken over the last couple days.  I wanted to give them a modest gift before I left.  They happily accepted and seemed to thoroughly enjoy looking at themselves in various poses.  I also donated a couple shirts, a towel and a hat.  It wasn't much, but I think that they could use anything that was offered. 

With that in mind, it is my hope to put together a gift package for them after returning to the states.  And although it is a long way off, to my friends and family in MN and WI, I humbly ask that you please consider holding onto any items that you may otherwise be donating in the next few months...chances are good that it could find a home with my friends on the beach in Sri Lanka.


From Hendrik on Feb 28th, 2009

Hi Shawn, Just catching up on your blog and i have to disagree with you on the indonesian Arrack. I loved the stuff!! Well except for that one time on the beach then. Take care m8, enjoy reading the stories.